Fishermen save overboard angler and his boat from Wasque shoals
Michael Prigoff loves fishing. On Friday his hobby almost cost him his life when he fell from his new 22-foot Triton center console into the turbulent shoal waters off the southeast corner of Martha's Vineyard.
As his boat ran in circles Mr. Prigoff, who was alone and not wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) at the time, struggled to stay afloat. In a rescue effort bound by an ethic that has guided mariners for ages, nearby fishermen saved Mr. Prigoff and recovered his very nearly swamped boat.
Captain Willy Hatch of the charter boat "Machaca," who maneuvered his boat into the heaving waves and with his willing charter passengers on a third attempt fished an exhausted Mr. Prigoff out of the sea, said saving another human being was "one of the best things in the world."
Mr. Hatch downplayed any notion of heroics. "I hope someone would do the same for me," he said.
For those involved it all came down to doing the right thing and responding to another mariner in trouble.
Captain Willy Hatch takes his boat into the shoal water to rescue Michael Prigoff.
An L-shaped ribbon of sand extends out from the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick to form a series of shoals that border Muskeget Channel. A huge volume of water moves into Nantucket Sound in water depths that vary dramatically, from approximately 40 to 90 feet in the channel to less than ten feet on the shoals.
The area where Mr. Prigoff ran into trouble is well known for its productive fishing and treacherous seas. The elements that contribute to both these reputations are strong currents and sudden changes in bottom contour. The current, which runs at up to four knots, carries confused bait fish tumbling over underwater bars, thus attracting game fish, and fishermen. It also creates turbulent waves.
Even on clear days, a sudden wind shift blowing counter to the tide or swells generated by a distant Atlantic Ocean storm that build up as they roll into shallow water can turn the passage through Muskeget Channel or over the shoals into a harrowing experience.
Mr. Hatch said, "Between the tide and the wind and the shoals you get some pretty nasty rips in there. It can get pretty bad."
Mr. Prigoff, a lawyer from Closter, New Jersey, has been visiting his friends Harry and Georgia Weiss, seasonal Chappaquiddick residents, for years. Last week he trailered his boat, a new 21-foot center console Triton named Outcast to Falmouth, and ran it over to the Vineyard where he tied up to the Weiss's dock in Edgartown Harbor.
Friday morning he took some friends fishing on the edge of the shoals. When one member of the group got seasick he decided to return, taking the long route around Cape Poge he said because the tide was too low to utilize the new Katama cut.
Frustrated after his aborted fishless trip, Mr. Prigoff decided to go back out in the afternoon alone. He said he normally wears a life jacket but decided not to that day because it was so calm.
Mitch Mills prepares to jump aboard the 22-foot Triton as the unmanned boat runs in circles.
By mid afternoon he decided to return by way of the Katama cut and look for friends sailing in the harbor. "I was heading back and trying to avoid the areas where there were big breakers and going along fine just trolling," he said in a telephone call Monday from his home, "and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a wave came up that was just unbelievably huge, crested over the rear quarter and just hit me and knocked me flat out of the boat."
Mr. Prigoff said the wave also very nearly rolled his boat completely over. Although the boat is equipped with a kill switch - a line from the ignition that can be clipped to the operator and stops the engine once it is pulled out - he was not wearing it at the time because it inhibits movement around the cockpit while fishing.
As the boat continued in a direction away from him, Mr. Prigoff worried that no one would notice what had happened and he might be unable to make it to shore. "So I was pretty panicked," he said.
The water temperature was approximately 62 degrees. On the short end of hypothermia charts, Mr. Prigoff had two hours before he would become exhausted or lose consciousness.
He took his yellow foul weather jacket off to use as a signal flag. "But the biggest problem was that I had to use a lot of energy to try and get noticed," he said. "The swells were pretty big so I could not see unless I was on the top."
He had seen other boats in the area. As he struggled to stay afloat he hoped that one of the nearby fishermen had noticed his predicament.
Then he saw a boat with two men on it approach. One man was in the bow holding a life jacket that he assumed was attached to a line and the man intended to throw.
A nautical chart shows the area of Wasque shoals and Muskeget Channel.
"And then the boat leaves," he said. "And that really panicked me. I could not figure that out at all. Then I was really not in too good of shape."
At that point the 57-year-old father of two thought he was going to die. He was angry with himself for being in that situation. And he knew that he needed to concentrate on conserving the energy he would need to alert a passing boat.
What Mr. Prigoff did not know at the time is that nearby fishermen had alerted the Coast Guard and were trying to gauge how best to pull him from a dangerous shoal area without capsizing their own boats. The steep waves jostled and crested, some reaching more than eight feet in height.
Jaime Boyle, an experienced Vineyard charter captain, was fishing in an area near green can number 3 that marks the west side of Muskeget Channel. His charters that afternoon aboard his 24-foot Silverhawk center console were two men and a young boy.
The men had caught and released two striped bass when another boat caught Mr. Boyle's attention. He saw a center console boat being tossed by the waves. "I looked to my right and I thought to myself, that boat shouldn't be into that shoal, that's a bad place to be," said Mr. Boyle, "then I realized there was nobody in that boat and it was just doing circles."
Two fishermen in a nearby 21-foot Hydra-Sport had also spotted the distressed boat. Captain Boyle ran over to the nearby boat. The men on board told Mr. Boyle that they had seen a fisherman fall out of the Triton but had lost sight of him and alerted the Coast Guard.
To enter the dangerous shoal waters required a careful calculation of one's seamanship, boat and the obvious risk. A misjudgment might mean more people would be in the water
Mr. Boyle said it was too dangerous for a small boat and he cautioned the men in the Hydra-Sport. Despite his advice, the fishermen tried to enter the heaving shoal waters and made a futile attempt to throw Mr. Prigoff a lifejacket before turning back.
"It's a tough call," said Mr. Boyle. For his part, the charter captain decided that his boat, designed for fly fishing, might swamp and he could not risk the lives of his passengers. Knowing a man was in the water made the choice painful. "It's a helpless feeling," said Mr. Boyle.
Mr. Boyle picked up the radio to alert nearby fishermen and spoke to captain Hatch, who was fishing just above the rip in his 31-foot JC twin diesel sport fishing boat with five Vineyarders out for a half-day charter.
Caleb Nicholson had arranged the trip as a bachelor party for his cousin Ryan McCarthy. The group included his dad Bill and brother Jesse Nicholson, uncle Mike McCarthy and cousin Eric McCarthy.
When the call came in that a boat was doing donuts in the rip and a fisherman needed help, he told captain Hatch that there was no question about what to do. "I told him of course we've got to go take care of this," said Mr. Nicholson, a partner in Contemporary Landscapes.
Mr. Hatch, a former Edgartown resident and experienced captain, swung his boat around the rip looking for the fisherman. The waves were cresting, making it difficult to see when his cousin spotted Mr. Prigoff.
The captain rigged a long anchor line to a mooring ball intending to try to drag it through the rip at a safe distance. He also considered donning a life jacket or survival suit and trying to swim to Mr. Prigoff.
"But then it was a pretty foggy day and I didn't want to go in, if the fog moved in they'd be looking for two people instead of one," he said.
Mr. Hatch said the area consists of shifting sands that can form into a small pop-up island as result of an eddy created by three conflicting currents. He did not want to enter the shallow shoal water, but decided he had no choice.
Although the waves might have flipped a smaller boat he calculated he faced less risk. "I had a pretty good chance of landing on the bottom off of one of those waves, it's so shallow in there, and maybe bending the shaft or the props but I wasn't going to sink the boat," he said. "I figured we'd be alright."
Mr. Nicholson said it took courage for the captain to go into the towering shoal waves. For his part, he and his family never doubted it was the right thing to do.
"If someone's in distress you go for it," said Mr. Nicholson. "This is something I'll never forget."
Mr. Prigoff had been in the water nearly 30 minutes when the Machaca came into the shoal. On the third pass he was able to grab hold of the mooring ball and line.
"They just pulled me in like a shark," said Mr. Prigoff. "I said, I hope you guys caught something beside this whale. But I was pretty spent at that point. They said I was blue when they brought me in and I couldn't do anything but retch up saltwater."
The men took off their sweatshirts and wrapped him up to keep him warm and elevated his feet as captain Hatch sped for Memorial Wharf and waiting EMTs. Mr. Prigoff was taken to Martha's Vineyard Hospital where he quickly recovered after a couple of hours of warmth and oxygen.
He returned to Edgartown Harbor by taxi wearing hospital scrubs. Unknown to him his boat was waiting undamaged on a mooring ball with the keys in it.
An assistant harbormaster took him out to his boat. And Mr. Prigoff slowly returned to the dock that he had left hours earlier that day.
In retrospect, he said that at one point Friday the wind came up and he put on his foul weather jacket intending to don his PFD later but never did put it on. He said it is a mistake he will not repeat in the future.
"Anybody that has spent anytime on the water knows how dangerous it can be," said Mr. Prigoff. "It's just hard to imagine that on a bright, clear not very windy day that it can rear up like that and bite you in the rear."
Commercial fishermen know the hazards of fishing at sea. Mitch "Mojo" Mills, a commercial fisherman who lives in Falmouth, and Phil Lewis of Needham were fishing in a 21-foot Parker when they heard the call over the radio. When they arrived, Mr. Prigoff was in the Machaca and on his way to Edgartown as his unoccupied boat continued to run in circles and fill with water.
After watching the boat's pattern, Mr. Mills told his friend to get as close as he could to the Triton's bow and he jumped into the boat. "I just figured it was the right thing to do," he said.
Mr. Mills pushed the throttle forward and the boat, held back by the weight of over a foot of water in its cockpit, slowly accelerated. The forward motion allowed water to drain out the transom.
"The radio was on, the depth finder was on, I just gave it gas and tried to get it into calmer water because it was ripping out there," said Mr. Mills. "So, I just figured, what the hell, I might as well bring it in and leave it for the guy."
Mr. Mills said he is on the ocean every day and knows how dangerous it can be on the water. "It is no joke out there, but there are people who are 100 percent willing to help out people in trouble," said Mr. Mills.
Home and happy to be alive, a very grateful Mr. Prigoff knows that to be true.